I’ve identified as lesbian/gay/queer for a long time now, and coming out was extremely liberating to me and I felt like I really came into myself and became more confident, more open, more honest, more willing to be vulnerable, etc. Being queer just fit me. And now… I’ve developed feelings for a man. Like, not just noticing in passing that he’s attractive or nice but holy shit really intense crush/emotional feelings. And it’s fucking me way up. Not only because I feel like my identity is shifting in a major way, but because moving through the world as a queer and women-centered person allowed me to shed or ignore so much of the shitty cultural messaging we get w/r/t bodies, internalized misogyny, internalized homophobia, etc. And now I feel like my self-esteem is really taking a dive because I feel like since having developed feelings for a man I see myself through “the male gaze” and am sure that I’m too fat, too loud, too ugly, not smart enough, etc., for anyone – particularly a man – to be interested in me. I’m not gonna say that I had like perfect self-love all the time before this, but I have these feelings much more intensely now and they change not only the way I feel about myself but the way I dress, eat, present myself, and just generally show up in the world. It fucking sucks!
How does one successfully navigate such a dramatic shift in a long-held and cherished identity?! Is it possible to have relationships with men devoid of internalized homophobia, misogyny, etc? Is it worthwhile to tell this person how I feel – could I possibly expect anyone to navigate all this baggage with me? What do I do to feel good about myself in the interim? Any and all thoughts/advice are appreciated. And BTW, I am going to therapy, exercising, journaling, trying to practice good self care, etc… but it’s especially challenging right now!
First of all, congrats on being so self-aware! I know this doesn’t feel good, but honestly you’re leaps and bounds ahead of so many women who are experiencing this as they relate with men in some way or another but don’t even know how to name it. You’re articulating your internal experience and working to take care of yourself and navigate this as healthily as you can, so you’re doing great.
It feels to me like we’re talking about at least three things here: what it means about your identity that you’re into this guy, what your options are as far as navigating the sudden renewed pressure of internalized male gaze, and how you want to navigate your actual dynamic with this actual person. Obviously they all relate, but let’s talk about them one by one for a minute.
What you’re talking about here both in terms of identity and gaze is really real! I know you know this but it bears repeating: being attracted to this dude does not make you not queer anymore. It does not make you less queer. It does make you probably not a lesbian, and to the extent that that was a specific identifier that felt important to you — I’m not sure about it from your question — it’s a good idea to take some time and space to let yourself feel how you feel about that, whether that feeling is loss or sadness or confusion or something else entirely. What you shouldn’t feel or at least let yourself wallow in, though, are shame or self-loathing. You aren’t bad or letting anyone down for having an identity that’s different than what you thought, or being attracted to someone you thought you couldn’t be. It’s a real experience and feeling; at the same time, it doesn’t mean anything about your character or personhood. You aren’t going to lose your community, history or sense of self over this; you may be in a transitional place for a while and feel like you don’t have all the answers, but you aren’t going to lose everything you’ve built in this part of your life that matters to you. Your connection to this identity and community have always been real, and will stay that way. There are so, so many other women who have been (and are!) in the position you’re describing — I hope you can find some of them in your local community and be affirmed in how normal an experience it is to realize your identity is a little different than you thought even after you were sure it was locked in. (Maybe some of those people will comment on this post, even! Who knows!)
You’re right about the internalized stuff, too: it fucking sucks. One of the most powerful and liberating aspects of queerness can be how hot and affirming queer desire can be; how the things that make us most ourselves in our bodies and our identities can also make us really hot to people we find really hot. It’s also true though that a lot of those same things about our identities and our bodies don’t track the same in straight spaces and mainstream culture — the same things about me that make me feel hot and interesting in queer spaces often make me feel awkward or like a failure at being a woman right in straight spaces. Which is not a good way to feel! And it’s especially not a good way to feel around someone you’re into and particularly want to feel good and sexy with. It’s a tall order, I think, for you to take on exorcising yourself of internalized misogyny and male gaze all on your own — it would be the emotional equivalent of deciding that you personally had to be accountable for stopping climate change by shaving down your shower time and recycling more. You’re caught in something that’s much bigger than you, and it wouldn’t be fair to expect yourself to just white-knuckle your way out of it. It’s great that you’re in therapy, and probably that is already giving you the tool of naming and noticing the harmful stories you’re unintentionally telling yourself about your clothes, your body, your choices, etc. Even just saying to yourself “wow, that was some internalized misogyny!” or noticing “I would be livid at anyone who said about a friend of mine what I just thought about myself!” is a good start.
One thing I have come to notice over years and years of navigating the weird tension between queer desirability and the relentless internalized gaze is that the first one is generally reciprocal: in navigating desire and desirability with other queer people, we tend to think not just about our own goodness or hotness but about what we want and like in other people. Knowing that we like a lot of the visibly queer or gender nonconforming or fat or “too loud” things about other people — that we’re actually really attracted to them — informs how we see ourselves. In straight spaces and culture, especially for women, that dynamic doesn’t exist in the same way? Women are encouraged to obsessively nitpick and curate themselves and their behavior to be as desirable as possible, but not necessarily really encouraged to evaluate or have desires for the same things in their partners. The question tends to be “Am I good enough for him to be into me? How could he ever possibly be into me?,” maybe sometimes “Are there any red flags/is he just a TOTAL mess” rather than “Are we both into each other, and why? How does he make me feel and what does he offer that I want in a potential partner?”
I’m not saying women who date men in straight contexts can’t or don’t have standards or desires for partners, but that the overwhelming cultural narrative is that they should work to be desired, not to desire. When you’re caught in these spirals of “too fat, too loud, too ugly, not smart enough, etc., for anyone – particularly a man – to be interested in me,” I suspect you’re caught up almost entirely in the former question, and not the latter. It might help to regain some sense of your agency and remember your own self in this dynamic if you start consciously focusing more on the question of what you want, and whether this guy or any other potential person meets it. What do you like about him; how does he meet or not meet your hopes and dreams? How does he make you feel, and what does he offer? What about him is desirable? This isn’t to cut him down to size or to find flaws as a self-esteem booster, but so you can reframe yourself not as a passive participant in this dynamic, but as an active one, a person who has wants and needs and desires in a partner and deserves to have them met too. People of various genders should — and will! — strive to be what you want. Those are the people you deserve, not the person who does you the favor of deciding you’re good enough.
Is this particular dude someone who can and will do those things? I don’t know, and probably you don’t know, and maybe he doesn’t know either. Is it worthwhile to tell him how you feel? It’s impossible to say, really; at the end of the day you’re going to have to ask yourself what the opportunities for happiness and the risks for harm are here when deciding how to move forward, just like you would with anything else, and factor in the identity questions and internalized stuff this is bring up for you. I don’t know whether things will work out such that navigating those things in the way you are now feels “worth it;” I do think that in general, being honest with ourselves and with others even and especially when it’s hardest to turns out to be incredibly rewarding. If you do tell him how you feel, you might learn and grow from it in ways that are hard to anticipate from here regardless of how he responds. And from what’s come up in your question, it sounds like the response you’d be looking for may be more than just reciprocated interest, but interest in spite of all these things you’re feeling about yourself. You asked, “could I possibly expect anyone to navigate all this baggage with me?” Oh sugar, it breaks my heart to hear that question. Yes, yes you can possibly. Is this guy going to be a person who can and will navigate it with you? Again, no idea! I wish I could tell you, but I can’t. I can tell you that there are so, so many people — who could be in your life in any number of ways — who would consider it an honor and a joy to navigate this baggage and more with you. You aren’t a burden on the people in your life! You aren’t difficult to love, or annoying to show up for!
You asked if it was possible to have relationships with men devoid of internalized homophobia and misogyny, and it is with a heavy heart I must tell you the answer is “not really.” I don’t know if it’s even possible to have relationships not with men that are devoid of those things; again, they are bigger and older than us and the roots run very deep. It might, though, be possible to have a relationship with a man in which internalized homophobia/biphobia and misogyny are addressed in an ongoing way, and where everyone involved tries their hardest to take care of each other. That’s how it should be. If you do end up dating this man or men later on, your queerness and the complicated feelings you have about your relationship in that context won’t be something to apologize for or repress away. Your queerness and everything that goes with it are special and valuable and integral to you, and that’s something that he should be always working to make space for and honor and treat with incredible care. Which might be good for you to remember, too! I hope that you can go forward with this, however you choose to, with a sense of how valuable your own identity is and will always be, and treat it with incredible care.